Does March Madness seem wonderfully madder this year, given this season’s remarkable parity in college basketball? Or is the game’s quality and tradition slipping away as more of the best players depart early for the NBA and as conferences devour one another in pursuit of big money?
Both arguments may be valid.
Let’s start with parity. Filling out your brackets and winning your office pool will surely be harder this year, what with talent depleted and spread more thinly. Bettors are tilting toward Louisville on the strength of an impressive showing in the last hurrah for the Big East Conference. But the odds aren’t all that convincing, as Indiana, Miami, Florida, Duke, Kansas, Ohio State and even Gonzaga expect to make this year’s Big Dance the most competitive in years.
At 100-1, Minnesota isn’t given much of a shot. But if the Gophers can beat a damaged UCLA team on Friday, they could join Virginia Commonwealth, Saint Louis, Bucknell and New Mexico in a cast of Cinderellas. A couple of wins in the tournament, and the home team’s regular-season inconsistencies — and coach Tubby Smith’s middling record in Minneapolis — may be forgiven.
This has been an especially frustrating year for Gophers fans. The team began the season with a rare dash into the Top 10, then lost 11 of its last 16 games, often inexplicably to lesser opponents. Wisconsin, the other team with a big local following, did the opposite by using a rugged defense to once again overachieve. Making more with less has become a nice habit in Madison, where mostly lightly recruited players (including a number of Minnesotans) stick around for four years and become better players under coach Bo Ryan.
Conspicuously absent from this year’s field is defending champion Kentucky, and therein lies the sadder trend in the college game. Last year, with an awesome collection of young talent, the Wildcats waltzed to an easy title. Then, their fans watched helplessly as five starters — three freshmen and two sophomores — jumped to the NBA.
Lost innocence? Not really. Few fans still believe that athletes are students in the usual sense, particularly in big-time settings. High school stars aren’t attracted to universities but to “programs” that will offer them the quickest route to the big money. As columnist Dave Kindred points out in the Washington Post, the NBA’s age restriction, requiring league players to be at least 19 years old, has turned universities into one-year prep schools for the pros.
That’s why March Madness no longer includes exceptional players tied closely to their college identities. Who can recite quickly where today’s NBA stars played college ball? If they played it at all, it was over in a flash for most. But fans of a certain age remember when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor, Pete Maravich, Bill Russell and Jerry West forged a true bond with the college game because they typically played it for three or four years.
Duke’s Christian Laettner played in 148 college games and four Final Fours. But his last was 21 years ago at the Metrodome, and the college game has changed much since those short-pants days. The muscle-bound physiques of today’s players tell the story. It’s no longer a game of finesse, medium-range jumpers and slick passes for easy layups but one of brute strength and the thunderous dunks that dominate the ESPN highlights.
Next season will bring another jolt to traditionalists, who will have trouble accepting Rutgers and Maryland as truly belonging to the Big Ten or Syracuse and Notre Dame to the ACC. But despite the jarring structural and stylistic changes and the galloping commercialism that has overtaken college basketball, March Madness remains a magical rite of early spring.
All it takes to get into the mood is filling out your bracket while appreciating the wide-open possibilities of this year’s tournament. So, pull up a chair. Almost anything can happen.